Although there are certain universal demands on the educational structure in any time and place, any aim of education is essentially specific to society and time. Aims of education are designed so that education helps to bring about some state of affairs that the power hierarchy in a society has defined as desirable. The definition of worthwhile aims of education and the selection of appropriate curricula contents to match these is to a large extent subject to the dictates of (for example) what is taken to be in the national interests as these are conceived by those in authority. That is one reason why most aims of education are contentious.
One contentious aim of education is the development of pupils’ capacities to become autonomous (Dworkin 1976, Young 1980, Fleming 1981, Callan 1988, Macedo 1990, White 1990, Norman 1994). Discourse on individual or personal autonomy as an educational aim largely focuses on the conditions that are necessary and sufficient for pupils to become autonomous. Whether or not the development of personal autonomy should be a universal aim of education is, however, also an issue for continuous debate. While some societies and cultures may accept the development of pupils’ personal autonomy as an educational aim at specific times in their history, others may and do take a very different position. There is an issue which arises here, which is how the development of personal autonomy as an aim of education should be discussed and understood in the contexts of cultural pluralities and emerging liberal democracies. This chapter examines the place of autonomy as an educational aim in relation to the apparent tensions between cultural pluralism and relativism on one hand, and the demands of an emergent democratic dispensation on the other. Examples will be drawn from Nigeria—one of the most culturally complex societies of twentieth-century Africa.